“Religion is the cause of every war...” I have heard this case made countless times since my childhood when I would listen to my Dad talk to his costumers about Jesus while painting their homes. Every cynic has their go-to argument that seems to cause their interlocutors the most trouble. I suspect that this is the kind of challenge that the Sadducees wheeled out to present to Jesus in Luke 20:28-33: “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a widow but no children, the man should marry the widow and raise up a family for his brother. Well, now: there were seven brothers; the eldest married a wife and died without children. The second and the third married her, and then each of the seven, and they died without children. Finally, the woman died as well. So, in the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be? The seven all had her as their wife.” The Sadducee party did not believe in the resurrection as the Pharisees did. But because none of the Sadducees’ writings have been preserved, so far as we know, we don’t know why the Sadducees held that position. But clearly, they did. And we can make some fairly reasonable guesses as to why.
The priests who served in the temple at the time of Jesus were appointed by Rome, not necessarily according to the priestly family of Aaron as the Torah stipulates. And the Priests, as I understand it, were almost entirely Sadducees. The Priests were appointed by Rome and by the nature of that very significant office, they held a kind of power over the people of Israel. In short, they had a relatively comfortable living with a government pension and enough status and influence to satisfy the ego. The last thing that we can imagine they might want is a revolution to mess up their situation. And people who believe that God will raise them from the dead, especially if they display great zeal for God, (think of Muslims today giving their lives for Jihad for the promised rewards of Allah), are far more likely to start a revolution then people who believe that this life is all that there is. Ergo, the priests tended to be Sadducees. The Sadducees obviously understood that Jesus sided with the Pharisees on this question, and with the enthusiastic crowd accompanying Jesus. My guess is that what they were trying to do was to pour some cold water on the over-heated crowd and the upstart, would-be Messiah, Jesus, by using their favorite argument against the belief in Resurrection. Their question rubs against the grain of our Western culture because it is such a male dominating question. One woman loses seven husbands and has no children, and the question the Sadducees want to be answered is: “who gets to keep the woman?” Ouch. What about the woman? What does she get in all of this?! But the point of the question is, of course, the possible complication that might appear if people were to be resurrected. Therefore, who could imagine such a thing? It is non-sense say the Sadducees.
Before we get to Jesus’ rebuttal of the challenge, we should ask why the Pharisees and Jesus Himself believed in the resurrection. What is or was at stake with this question? Why did it matter? Resurrection, we should note, is not that same thing as “going to heaven”. Resurrection is re-embodied life on earth. Anything else would not be the resurrection. Jesus believed in a future re-embodiment of the people of God on earth. That fact is the basis for this entire ministry of The Gospel For Planet Earth. Matter matters, according to Jesus. But why does it matter to Jesus and the Pharisees? It matters because Israel’s very existence is based upon the foundational belief that there is only one true God and that He is the creator God who created a good physical reality in the creation of the earth. This God created man to watch over and continue this creative project. However, man rebelled and the creation fell into chaos. Therefore, God called Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, to be the one through whom God would set His creation right again. This is what made Israel unique among all the nations of the world. But generations had come and gone and Israel appeared to be just as rebellious and unreliable for God as the rest of the nations which did not know God and were not in covenant with Him, except for a few people whose faithfulness revealed that they truly hoped in the fulfillment of the promises of God made to Abraham. And like their father Abraham, this faith in the God of Israel was reckoned by God to be a mark of true covenant membership. In other words, while Israel as a whole had failed in its vocation to be the light of the world, there were still individuals and groups of individuals that clung to the promises. How would these individuals ever be vindicated in their faith in the God of Israel if they never lived to see the fulfillment of the promises? Answer: resurrection. God had already preserved Israel under remarkably difficult seasons of oppression and exile. He would also preserve those who had died in faith by bringing faithful Israel back from the dead to enjoy God’s ultimate future. Jesus affirmed that this faith in God to do this remarkable thing was not misplaced. And Jesus’ remarkable healings were a sign in the present that Jesus was finally bringing God’s future forward into the present.
The Sadducees, I suggest, were too content with the present to accept God’s future which could jeopardize their situation. Hence the challenge of the belief in the resurrection. But Jesus’ response showed them that they were being contradictory to the scriptures and the hope of Israel at a very foundational level. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (the foundation stones of Israel’s existence), is not God of the dead but of the living, for all live to him. This does not mean, of course, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not, in fact, dead as we know it. Obviously, they were. But death wasn’t and isn’t the end of the story. They were alive in God’s presence, awaiting the day of their re-embodiment, their resurrection, to live in God’s future restored world. It is not enough to say that they were “alive in heaven and one day we will go to join them there.” That is not resurrection, nor is it the fulfillment of the promises of God made to Abraham to set the creation right again through him. Going to Heaven is not defeating death, it is only saying that death is no big deal. But death is a big deal! Sin and death is the enemy of God's good creation and always has been. That is why Resurrection is central to Jesus’ own beliefs about what God was doing and was going to do. God presides over life-giving projects. He doesn’t allow death to have the final word in His good creation. Resurrection is central to the plan and purposes of God for Israel and for the world.
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